Politics & Government

Lawmakers question cost of Wichita school district health plan at school finance hearing

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A Johnson County lawmaker scrutinized the cost of the Wichita school district’s employee health plan Wednesday during a hearing on a bill that would steer more state dollars to the district.

SB 512, which was reviewed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, is one of the potential responses to a recent order by the Kansas Supreme Court to fix inequities in school funding before July. It would shift money between school districts to meet the court’s demand that the state fix inequities in school funding.

Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said he’s been poring through data on districts’ health plans and that Wichita spends $22,000 on the health plan per employee, about twice as much as other large districts. However, the district disputed that figure, saying it spends an average of about $10,500 annually on health benefits per district employee.

That includes the cost of paying for the dependents of employees.

“They’re the only school district that I’ve analyzed that pay 100 percent, for the most part, of all health care (costs) for their employee, the employee’s family,” Denning said. “… When I looked at the other large districts, they’re spending about half as much. When you look at the state plan, it doesn’t come anywhere near the generous benefits that they’re spending there.”

Denning said later that he arrived at the $22,000 figure through his own analysis. “I gave my calculations to them and said, ‘Am I close,’ ” he said, explaining he was still waiting to hear back from the district.

He said he was concerned that the money going to health benefits could instead go toward the classroom. “The money has to come from someplace,” Denning said.

Diane Gjerstad, spokeswoman for the Wichita school district, said the health plan is comparable with the ones offered by Johnson County districts.

“We do it in response to market forces. We have large employers in the Wichita area – Spirit, Via Christi – they offer health care and so we offer health care,” Gjerstad said. “It’s part of our recruitment and our retention package. Just as I think the districts in Johnson County are using the same mechanisms.”

“It’s part of their salary package,” she said. “So instead of having those dollars available for salary, they are used for the benefit.”

Johnson County school districts would lose money under the school finance bills being considered in both the House and the Senate. That has irked many of that county’s lawmakers, who object to the gains that Wichita and other Sedgwick County districts will receive if lawmakers equalize school funding as instructed by the court.

“Nobody wants to be a loser. And our schools are a loser,” Denning said. “… And then we see $5 million going to Wichita, which is not even going to the classroom, it’s going to property tax relief. … You just want to know what the courts are thinking.”

Nobody wants to be a loser. And our schools are a loser.

Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park

The House bill would increase overall state funding to schools for next year to accomplish equalization, but the Senate plan, which was crafted by Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, the Senate’s budget chairman, does not spend a penny more from state coffers. Instead it would shift money already within the K-12 system.

That means that 185 districts would lose overall funding, according to an analysis by the Kansas Department of Education, while 101 schools districts would gain.

However, the gains for some districts will be more modest under Masterson’s plan than an initial analysis showed because of the way his plan shifts money.

The Wichita school district would gain about $10 million in equalization aid, but half of that would go to property tax relief to Wichita residents. The district would also experience a $4 million cut to the district’s general state aid. In the end, Masterson’s plan would only steer about $500,000 more to Wichita classrooms.

The House plan by comparison would put $5.1 million toward property tax relief for Wichita residents, and another $4.5 million would go to school operations.

Both Andover and Haysville would lose about $200,000 in overall state aid from Masterson’s plan.

Masterson called his bill “the purest response” to the court’s demand to fix equity in school funding.

The intent is to not have them actually pull the trigger on the kids and close the schools.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover

“We’re on a time crunch. … The intent is to not have them actually pull the trigger on the kids and close the schools,” Masterson said, noting the court’s July deadline. “They basically said take these two pots (of money), … equalize them the way you used to, and we consider that equalized. There’s all types of flaws with that logic, which we’ll get into, but that’s what they said.”

Masterson’s bill is titled the “Court ordered redistribution of district funds act.”

Attorneys for the school districts, however, say the court’s order requires lawmakers to spend more dollars to equalize rather than just shifting funds like Masterson’s plan.

Masterson expressed his shock both before and after the hearing that no school districts, except for one Johnson County district, showed up to testify on the bill. The Kansas Association of School Boards took a neutral stance on the bill, saying it supported equalizing aid between districts but opposed the lack of new state dollars.

“I was highly disappointed that we didn’t have a real discussion,” Masterson said after the hearing. “I was blown away that we had a bill on the table that adds $5.5 million to Wichita … and takes away from Johnson County and others and I had no proponents and no opponents.”

Gjerstad said it is early in the process and that the district will have ample opportunity to weigh in on a solution to the court’s order.

Masterson said he plans to have the Ways and Means Committee vote Thursday on whether to send the bill to the floor. He wants to pass legislation before the Legislature takes its April break, but some legislative leaders want to move at a more cautious pace.

“I want to get it right the first time. I don’t want to rush it,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell. “You know we’ve done that before and then we clean up the mess afterwards.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

Total loss or gain for Wichita-area districts including property tax relief under SB 512

Wichita

$5,575,746

Derby

$1,113,347

Haysville

-$182,823

Valley Center

$147,160

Mulvane

$493,608

Clearwater

$58,915

Goddard

$344,198

Maize

$280,862

Renwick

$16,052

Cheney

$1,948

Andover

-$219,478

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